Video: DARPA Demos Its ARM Robot

Ever wondered what it would look like if a robot grabbed you by the face?

1 min read
Video: DARPA Demos Its ARM Robot


Ever wondered what it would look like if a robot grabbed you by the face?

On Monday we brought you an extensive video montage showing the most impressive robots we saw on the show floor of the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), in St. Paul, Minn., last week. After seeing that video, many of you wrote in to ask for more footage of the DARPA ARM robot (the one that pried the camera from our weak human hands and spun it in the air). No problem!

In the video above, Patrick Rowe from RE2, the Pittsburgh firm hired by DARPA to build the robot, which apparently is called "Robbie," describes its main components and capabilities. Later this year, a copy of the robot will be sent to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and RE2 is developing games and tasks for visitors to interact with the robot. The challenge is to give visitors as much control of the robot as possible without allowing them to, er, destroy it.

The DARPA ARM program, which seeks to revolutionize robot manipulation, is coming to its final phase, in which the remaining teams will face some tough challenges, including changing a tire of a small car. It remains to be seen whether the program will fulfill its goal of significantly advancing robotic manipulation (whose progress has been glacially slow), but one thing's for sure: You don't want to get your face too close to Robbie.

Image and video: Erico Guizzo & Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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